Late one Friday night in September 2013, two cavers were spelunking through the pitch-black Rising Star caves in the Cradle of Humankind when they found an entrance to an as yet undiscovered chamber towards the back of the system.
The explorers, Rick Hunter and Steven Tucker, noticed fossils visible on the chamber floor and took some quick photographs - unaware of the significance of what they had stumbled upon:
Hunter and Tucker showed the photographs to fellow caver and geologist Pedro Boschoff, who recognised the potential significance of the find and alerted Professor Lee Berger.
What followed in late 2013 and early 2014 was an extensive, detailed two-part exploration of the chamber and a painstaking process to excavate the fossils by the Rising Star Expedition.
Hand bone in situ. Photo by Marina Elliot/Wits University
K. Lindsay Hunter and Marina Elliot were two of the first ‘underground astronauts’, selected for their size and experience, to set foot into the Dinaledi Chamber:
The fossils that Hunter, Elliot and their four fellow ‘underground astronauts’ unearthed in the chamber were carefully transported up to the surface and into the arms of a waiting battalion of researchers. The fossils were initially examined in the command tent at the nearby Rising Star Expedition camp, before eventually being transported to the University of the Witwatersrand.
The bones were further analysed in a unique workshop in May 2014, funded by the South African National Research Foundation, Wits University and National Geographic. More than 50 experienced scientists and early-career researchers came together to study the fossils and compose scientific papers.
The unveiling of Homo naledi as a news species of hominin is a result of this analysis.